Child detention – the answer is justice, not tougher measures

Pilot scheme giving families a fortnight to leave the UK “voluntarily” has not been successful so fa

A pilot scheme aimed at ending child detention in the UK through voluntary deportation has not had much success so far, according to a report by the BBC.

The scheme involves giving families with children two weeks to leave the country "voluntarily", with leeway for officials to give orders for a family to leave on a specific day.

In the pilot, 113 families in the north-west of England and London were invited to special family conferences at which they are told that they had to make arrangements to leave.

Documents seen by the BBC show that just one family has so far been successfully removed voluntarily. Two families accepted resettlement packages, and another two that refused to comply were taken into detention and subsequently deported.

It will be easy for the populist right to argue that the apparently low rate of removal indicates that the scheme is a failure and there is no effective alternative to detention.

However, the numbers in the document in fact tell a different story. Just three families – and remember this is out of a total of 113 – went on the run or cut contact with officials. Most of the others used their freedom to go through the courts or the appeals system to fight their removal legally.

The findings highlight a problem with the asylum system that goes beyond questions of detention: the vast majority of people seeking asylum are not given anything resembling a fair hearing. A substantial proportion of asylum cases that are rejected the first time round are won on appeal, causing not only trauma to the person in question, but unnecessary cost to the taxpayer.

This existing problem is set to deteriorate further, thanks to fast-tracked asylum applications, cuts to legal aid which have already made it difficult to find a lawyer to take on appeal cases in many areas, and these quick-turnaround deportations.

In this context, it seems brutal that officials are proposing tougher measures (outlined in the same document), such as "ensured return", and "non-detained" accommodation near airports, which frankly sound rather like deportation and detention by different names. Other suggested tactics include electronic tagging and arresting one parent in order to force other family members to board a flight (how's that for "moral outrage", Nick Clegg?)

The commitment to end child detention is hollow if it is simply replaced with similarly punitive and non-humane methods. According to the Children's Society, evidence from abroad shows that families leave voluntarily if they feel they have had a fair hearing.

The answer is not imprisonment, or rushed removals to potentially dangerous situations, but an asylum process that, from start to finish, adheres to basic standards of justice.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech on the arts in north London on September 1, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Can Labour MPs force Corbyn to bring back shadow cabinet elections?

It is not up to the parliamentary party whether the contests are reintroduced. 

Soon after Jeremy Corbyn became the frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest, it was reported that he intended to bring back shadow cabinet elections. But as I later wrote, that's not the case. Corbyn has resolved that he will maintain the right to appoint his own team, rather than having it elected by MPs (as was the case before Ed Miliband changed the system in 2011). As he wrote in the NS: "Whoever emerges as leader on 12 September needs a shadow cabinet in place as soon as possible. I will appoint a strong, diverse shadow cabinet to hold this government to account from day one."

Now, ahead of his likely victory a week on Saturday, Corbyn is under pressure from some MPs to reverse his stance. Barry Sheerman, the former education select commitee chair, told me that he wanted a "serious discussion" within the PLP about the return of the elections. While some support their reinstatement on principled grounds, others recognise that there is a tactical advantage in Corbyn's opponents winning a mandate from MPs. His hand would be further weakened (he has the declared support of just 14 of his Commons colleagues). 

But their reinstatement is not as simple as some suggest. One senior MP told me that those demanding their return "had not read the rule book". Miliband's decision to scrap the elections was subsequently approved at party conference meaning that only this body can revive them. A simple majority of MPs is not enough. 

With Corbyn planning to have a new team in place as soon as possible after his election, there is little prospect of him proposing such upheaval at this point. Meanwhile, Chuka Umunna has attracted much attention by refusing to rule out joining the left-winger's shadow cabinet if he changes his stances on nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation (a lengthy list). Umunna is unlikely to remain on the frontbench but having previously pledged not to serve, he now recognises that there is value in being seen to at least engage with Corbyn. Were he to simply adopt a stance of aggression, he would risk being blamed if the backbencher failed. It is one example of how the party's modernisers recognise they need to play a smarter game. I explore this subject further in my column in tomorrow's NS

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.